WEEK THREE - March 2, 2018
by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association
This week’s IPHA Preparedness Blog begins a series of blogs outlining retrospectively how we got to where we are today with bioterrorism and prospectively outlining bioterrorism threats and concerns for the future. Importantly, and purposefully, we want to closely examine historical utilizations of bioterrorism agents and how their effects could have been minimized and/or prevented.
Basic forms of bioterrorism have co-existed with armed conflicts throughout human history. As humans expanded their knowledge of infectious disease, the desire and will to use this knowledge for malfeasance increased. First reported histories of bioterrorism date back to the 6th Century B.C. when the Assyrians used fungi to poison the wells of their enemies. It is important to note the Assyrian Empire, located in parts of modern-day Iraq and Turkey for over a thousand years, was in significant decline politically and militarily when the fungus poisoning was done.
More common uses of bioterrorism arose from armies disseminating human and animal remains into living areas, water and food supplies of their enemies. Though the modern germ theory of disease connecting microorganisms to infectious diseases was not established until the late 19th Century, civilizations had long understood decaying corpses of animals and humans with their terrible smells associated with deadly contaminants. The first theories of infectious diseases focused on disease transmission and contamination thru “foul smells” or “bad vapors”. History has numerous cases of plague and other infectious disease victims being launched into besieged cities and dropped into wells. It was long understood that blankets, clothes and other materials used by sick and dying patients of infectious diseases could be carriers of the same diseases (fomites); these fomites, as biowarfare agents, is demonstrated by smallpox carrying blankets being given to non-friendly Native American tribes during the French and Indian War by both British and French forces.
The roughly hundred-year Industrial Revolution from 1760 to 1860 originated at the time of French-Indian and American Revolutionary Wars of the latter 18th Century and the Napoleonic Wars of the early 19th Century, all of which were essentially world wars involving, at varying times, the dominant empires of the period: Austria, France, Great Britain, Ottoman Empire (Turkey), Portugal, Prussia (Germany), Russia, Spain and crossing all continents. Advancement of battlefield weaponry exhibited a steady progression during this time frame with the demands of world-wide armed conflicts. However, a half century later during the American Civil War, we observed an exponentially rapid advancement of battlefield technology with the first utilization of telegraph for communication to and from the battlefield, balloons for battlefield observation, railroads for rapid troop movement, trenches for defense, repeating rifles (ability to continue firing without reloading), submarines, iron clad ships, photography, hand grenades, machine guns, rockets, land mines, sea mines and battlefield obscuring floodlights.
Weapons advancement in the 19th Century arose from the Industrial Revolution. Similarly, we will see in upcoming blogs the time-period leading up to World War I and beyond to World War II and throughout the 20th Century coincided with a series of biological discovery revolutions and concurrently great advances in biological weapons of mass destruction. Despot nation states of the past attempted to gain economic and philosophical advantage thru imprisoning, enslaving and killing of people. These nation states subsequently had, to varying degrees, the commonality trait of the ancient Assyrians that when their empires were in decline and they were at an increasing military disadvantage they utilized weapons of mass destruction, often including bioterrorism, as a last measure of survival. Unfortunately, during armed conflict with great strife and stress, comes great need and discovery, combined with less reservation to use weapons of mass destruction whether it be world wars of the past for the acquisition of territory or modern attempts to destroy societies.
We should expect modern terrorist organizations will continue to attempt the harnessing of bioweapons, necessitating steps to prepare for, identify and counteract bioterrorism. As the late 19th Century and 20th Century biological discoveries led to significant advances in biological warfare, 21st Century DNA and genetic discoveries will do so to even greater degrees. We cannot expect to eliminate the will to use agents of bioterrorism, rather we must remain focused on limiting access of misguided scientists and leaders to microbes, equipment and scientific expertise for development and deployment of bioweapons. Likewise, we must remain ever diligent in our all hazards emergency preparedness operations, plus collaboration, coordination and cooperation strategies and activities involving all potentially impacted agencies and organizations, as well as those tasked with responding to emergencies.